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Sometimes It Pays to Listen

Written by in Profiles

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Looking Back Over The Years, Donovan Beery Recalls Some Good Advice

It’s weird to think that last month marked my company’s 10th anniversary. I realize that 10 is just a number, but numbers can make us reflect back on what it took to get to where we are sometimes, and this is one of those numbers.

I can’t count the number of projects since then that start with me hearing what the client is asking for, and trying to take a step back to hear what they want. And then seeing if another step back leads to a solution of what they really want.

A lot of this number has to do with having clients, contractors, interns, employees and business partners that are great to work with and for, but a lot of it really goes to people that are not involved at all, and that’s what this post is about.

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to meet some really great people in this profession, and sometimes just sitting down and talking for half an hour can change your thoughts, and with them, the direction of your career.

But advice only works well if you listen to it. And understand why it’s good advice. With that in mind, the following six may or may not be the best I have gotten in my career, just the best advice that I actually followed. These are listed not by importance, but in chronological order.

So with all of that, I bring the conversations that have had the largest effect to getting Eleven19 to 10 years.

“Get out before you get use to the money.”

The designer in the cubicle closest to mine said this to me many times at my first job. At first it was almost like she was joking. Then I got the same advice from someone in a different department. It’s hard to leave a job that pays well – especially if you really like the people you are working with. But we all know what we want to do long term and what we don’t. I realized this was not about taking a job that paid less. This is about not putting yourself in a situation where you feel trapped by the paycheck. I still miss the paycheck (and the people), but I like my current job a lot more.

I have no idea what this advice actually was.

Emily Ruth Cohen was coming into Omaha to speak to the AIGA Nebraska chapter. I had never heard of Emily, and I had no idea of what she did other than the fact that she was going to be speaking on estimating and bidding for design jobs at a luncheon the next day. When I joined the AIGA Nebraska board, I never considered much about what it would involve, what I would get from it, nor that I would be on it for the next seven years (as it turned out). I just figured, hey, this sounds like it could be fun, and I have enough free time to give it a go, so why not. Three of us on the board went out with Emily the night before she spoke, and I got more advice on how I should be bidding and estimating than ever before. Part of it was about presenting yourself like a professional. Part of it was about pricing fairly (it’s in the interest of both parties to pay/bid accordingly, as you are looking to be in this for the long run. Overpricing may not get you another project, underpricing may not allow you to pay your bills at times). Part of it was on what I was doing wrong.

I’m sure I forgot 95% of it immediately, but this did put me on a much better path to bidding and estimating. And these two items affect the bottom line more than anything.

“An even better client is one who says, ‘we have an idea that people want to hang things on a wall.'”

I was co-hosting a podcast, the Be A Design Cast, when I found myself in San Francisco with my co-host, Nate Voss. I somehow lined up interviews with the three partners of Pentagram that were located in that office. Kit Hinrichs was the only one of the three I had met at this time, and I knew little about Lorenzo Apicella (an architect, or Robert Brunner (a product designer). In fact, I know little about architecture and product design now. So, I did some initial research, and actually had a few questions lined up that I thought would be interesting to our audience.

Robert Brunner had a hammer he had designed in his portfolio, and knowing nothing about how to go about asking someone to design a product for you, I simply asked something like, “Is a good client someone who asks you if you can design a better hammer?” He said something like, “That would be an ok client. A better client is someone who says, ‘we have an idea that people want to drive nails into a wall.’ An even better client is one who says, ‘we have an idea that people want to hang things on a wall.'” Knowing that he came from Apple, I immediately got the difference between the iPod and the Zune. One was created with the idea that people may want to carry their music with them. The other was created that people just wanted an iPod with a bigger hard drive.

I can’t count the number of projects since then that start with me hearing what the client is asking for, and trying to take a step back to hear what they want. And then seeing if another step back leads to a solution of what they really want.

I also do not remember the actual advice from this one.

Before Bennett Peji spoke to the AIGA Nebrasksa chapter, he stopped by my office to record a podcast with Nate and I (by this time we had started up The Reflex Blue Show, which I still host at 36 Point). Between this, the event itself, and dinner afterwards, Bennett was a constant inspiration to listen to.

First, this guy is as happy as a designer as you would want to meet. You can tell he loves what he does, and it’s contagious. He also had a great work/life balance, and was very serious about keeping it that way. He then spoke of working boards (like the AIGA Nebraska board I was on) and policy boards. When my AIGA term was over, I took his advice and moved onto a few policy boards (I am currently working on a few of these, and I’m not sure I would have jumped right on them without his advice).

But of most importance, to me, was the talk of how he sold his work. I gathered from it that you have to be who you are, figure out what makes you different, and sell it. Remember, it’s not about getting the most work, it’s about getting the right work for you. Last month we went through a streak of turning down four clients in a row without even making a bid (they were not good fits, or based on my experience, were such long odds of us getting the work that it was not going to be worth the time). I felt terrible after the fourth one, but it did allow us to not have to turn down the next bidding opportunity we got (which was a great fit). And it allowed us to not be miserable working on projects we wouldn’t have been good for.

“Market in the recession.”

Has it been almost three years since I ran into Terry Marks after the kick-off to the 2009 HOW Conference in Austin? After the main event, we headed a block away for drinks and food. During dinner, Terry was discussing a recent project he did that was based on research in how to market during a recession. When money tightens up, it’s natural to look to ‘cut the fat’ out of a company’s budget. And face it – a lot of advertising is seen as unneeded fat (whether it is or not, that is not the point). This makes sense to me, why would I not cut back on things that may or may not be needed in my business, especially if everyone else seems to be.

Well, according to the research he discussed, because a lot of businesses cut back, some advertising becomes cheaper (a supply and demand sort of occurrence). And more importantly, since there is less advertising and marketing going on, you can have a bigger impact if you ‘stay the course’ (or go the other way, and actually increase your budget). How much more memorable is marketing when there is less for it to compete against? The end game of this is suppose to be that those who stayed to their marketing scope, or went up seem to (historically) grow slightly during the recession. And these businesses than have a head start when the recession ends (historically, all recessions have ended at some point), grew at twice the pace of the companies that did what would seem natural and scaled their marketing back.

I figured, hey, having a one-man creative team (with a part-time creative) company, why not increase this? So, we went forward with more marketing than ever (still nothing crazy, still based on a budget for a small shop), and I think it’s made the difference. Our yearly client mailings went bigger, and went with what we thought would be fun. To celebrate our 10th year, we sent out an 18″ x 24″ poster for an invitation to an open house instead of a simple email blast (because how much impact does a mailing tube have now that nobody gets them anymore?) I can’t say for sure if it is the only reason or not, but we just hired the part-timer on as full-time last month. Welcome aboard, Ben Lueders! (That’s him, on the left, in the photo at top, getting ready for our cookie and beer open house to celebrate 10 years.)

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Our open house invitation. Printed on Neenah (blatant shout-out) Classic Crest.

“Don’t be afraid of cliches.”

To celebrate the first year of The Reflex Blue Show, Justin Ahrens, Steve Hartman and Christine Taylor visited Nate and I in Omaha to celebrate and record the first show of season two. Hearing this was happening, Nate and I decided to take advantage of having designers with much more talent than ourselves being around, and decided to work on a project.

We had one day, zero dollars, and no ideas. Sometimes limitations are all you need to create a project.

One day? Five designers? I guess that gives us enough time to design a poster.

No dollars? Sounds like we need to get this donated.

Donated? Sounds like we need to have a good client. Maybe we ask Justin if his non-profit client, Life in Abundance, would like some help.

And with that, Spark Stationery and Neenah Paper (I did not know anybody from either of these companies when we did this) printed a 6-plate letterpress poster.

The morning started with Justin giving us a rundown of what Life in Abundance does, and then we stared at a giant blank sheet of paper. Somewhere in this time I remember Justin saying, “don’t be afraid of cliches.”

Designers love Target and Apple (right?), and aren’t their logos the biggest cliches there are? I’m not saying the easiest solution is always the best, but don’t discount it just because it appears ‘too simple.’ We ended up with a poster based on the shape of Africa as a starting point.

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The finished poster. Printed on Neenah (another blatant shout-out) EAMES™ Paper.

And I’m not too worried about doing a post with a cliche of a ‘list’ either. Although, like all cliches, sometimes you need to add that twist in there. And my twist today is that I’ll stick with 6 items instead of the generic 5 or 10.

I guess it’s only fair to end with the advice I try to give. It may take more time than you want it to, it may not pay much most of the time, but it’s a great thing to work in a creative field. If it’s what you want to do, don’t let the little things stop you from doing it. And don’t be afraid to ask others for advice or help – I don’t plan to stop with that.

  1. 04
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    10:14am
    Ben Lueders said:

    Amazing post- and thanks for the mention!

  2. 04
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    10:39am
    Neenah Paper said:

    Nice post. Filled with clever insight and detail. Donovan, we should re-release in excerpts!

  3. 04
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    10:42am

    HA! I thought about doing this in a couple parts, but it felt better as just one post.